Varadaraja V. Raman
The Heart's Reason: Hinduism and Science
Varadaraja V. Raman is emeritus professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's written many books including Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections.
November 22, 2007
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. You wouldn’t know it from headlines about school board controversies and best-selling books called The God Delusion, but there is a rich global dialogue between religious thinkers and scientists of many disciplines. This hour we’ll speak with a voice in that dialogue, Hindu physicist V.V. Raman. We’ll explore the spirituality of Hinduism and the great tradition of science, as V.V. Raman puts it, through the intersection of the two in his life.
MR. V.V. RAMAN: Science enables us to understand the laws and principles by which the universe is constructed, its functions, and that is no trivial accomplishment. But there is always the question of meaning.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. The Hindu physicist V.V. Raman has been described as a transcultural voyager who finds meaning in life as he courses from physics to philosophy, from music to metaphysics, from Bhagavad-Gita to Gregorian chants. He’s an esteemed voice in the global dialogue between scientific and religious perspectives that is often obscured by headlines of a science-religion clash. Where American culture finds cognitive dissonance, V.V. Raman describes a consonance of experience.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Heart’s Reason: Hinduism and Science, with V.V. Raman.”
Varadaraja V. Raman is emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He’s lived and taught in the U.S. for four decades, but he was born into a Brahmin Tamil family in Calcutta in 1932, and educated in mathematics and physics in India and Paris. V.V. Raman has devoted his life to the science of physics and to the elucidation of Hindu religion.
MR. RAMAN: I have come to regard myself as an inheritor of two great traditions, as I see it: one, the Hindu tradition on the religious plane, and other, the scientific tradition, which I regard as one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual triumphs in the history of humankind.
MS. TIPPETT: V.V. Raman is currently helping to edit a new 18-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism. He’s authored scores of papers on the historical, social, and philosophical aspects of physics, as well as the heritage of his native India. His books include Glimpses of Ancient Science and Scientists, and it is from his long imagination about history and time that V.V. Raman begins to put a Western sense of science and religion at odds into perspective.
Modern science emerged in Western Europe, he says, and its immediate discoveries contradicted specific church teachings. But this kind of point-counterpoint never happened in the Hindu world.
MR. RAMAN: In the Hindu world, fortunately, there was a clear understanding of what constitutes religious knowledge inside experience on the one hand and what may be called intellectual, analytical, secular knowledge. This distinction is much more clear, it seems to me, in the Hindu world, which is why we don’t have this kind of conflict.
MS. TIPPETT: So in your way of seeing the world, then, as a Hindu, is there never a conflict, there’s a distinction and yet not a divide?
MR. RAMAN: Exactly. One often talks about cognitive dissonance, for example. Now, I rather call it an experiential consonance. And what I mean by that is that it is possible to distinguish between what we understand and explain in the logical and analytical framework, which is what science provides, and to distinguish it from another level of experience in the world, which comes from what may be called deep involvement. It is not unlike enjoying music on the one hand and then proving a geometrical theorem. You can do both, not…
MS. TIPPETT: Those are two kinds of — right.
MR. RAMAN: These are two kinds of experience, and the human spirit, if I may use the word, is so complex, and the human dimension, that we have all kinds of possibilities. And one of the unfortunate consequences, to me, of the successes of the sciences is this addiction, as it were, to rationality.
MS. TIPPETT: An addiction to rationality.
MR. RAMAN: By which I mean that every single aspect of human experience must be subjected to rigid rationality. Now, I have the greatest respect for reason and rationality, but I also think of, you know, from the Ecclesiastics who may say, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven,” which has been articulated by thinkers through the ages in all the cultures, I would say. When Pascal wrote his famous statement, you know, “Le cour a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” — “the heart has its reasons which reason doesn’t understand” — those are ways by which the enlightened thinkers and visionaries understood that the world is far too complex for us to really rigidly put everything under the straitjacket of reason, as it were.
MS. TIPPETT: You make a point in something you’ve written that reflects an observation I’ve made, that so much of our cultural debate about science and religion seems to assume that science and religion pose competing answers to the same questions, but, in fact, they pose different questions. And you also note that in Tamil there’s a distinction linguistically between ‘why’ as a causative question, the way science might ask why of a problem, and ‘why’ as a teleological question the way religion might ask it. I thought that was very interesting.
MR. RAMAN: I think it’s a very, very important distinction because both kinds of ‘why’ are important in that the human mind cannot escape those questions. We are intrigued by many…
MS. TIPPETT: And we start asking those questions from a very young age, don’t we?
MR. RAMAN: Very young age. And — but the languages influence sometimes our way of thinking because when we talk as I — again that example, I sometimes ask my students, ‘Why are you taking this course?’ Some students may say, ‘Because it is required in my curriculum’; others may say, ‘Because I want to learn what you are going to talk about.’ Now, you see, these two answers both are legitimate answers to the same question, but the first answer implies the framework in which the student is operating, the second…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s kind of a logical framework.
MR. RAMAN: …but the second is purposeful and teleological, the second one, ‘Because I want to learn.’ It’s in the future, whereas the first one is because that’s how the rules are set up. So both questions are relevant, interesting, except that, as I see it, the question about why in the deeper sense of what is the purpose of this universe — Why am I here? And why was the world created at all? Why are the laws such as they are? — those are very fundamental questions for which we may never be able to find answers which are unanimously acceptable.
MS. TIPPETT: Physicist and Hindu scholar V.V. Raman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today exploring the intersection of scientific knowledge and Hindu spirituality in V.V. Raman’s life.
Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion, after Christianity and Islam, but it is by far the most ancient, as is its sacred language of Sanskrit. Alone among the world’s major traditions, though, Hinduism has no known founder and no identifiable point of origin in history. Hinduism has sages and teachers, but no religious authorities. Deeply rooted in Indian culture, it was only identified in the 19th century by European scholars as a formal religion.
V.V. Raman has called Hinduism a cultural religious worldview that has given rise to an impressive body of sacred literature, magnificent art, great music, majestic architecture, and profound philosophy. Its foundational truths are captured in ancient scriptures known as Vedas, and conveyed by epic poetry and saga such as the Bhagavad Gita. One of V.V. Raman’s starting points for imagining the compatibility of science and religion is the impulse of universality that he finds both at the heart of science and in Hindu spirituality.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think it is striking — I believe you and I have spoken about this when we met originally — that although Hinduism is the third-largest world religion after Christianity and Islam, it’s the least known. It’s the least in the headlines, partly for positive — you know, because it’s not so much making the news in so many negative ways these days.
MR. RAMAN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s not as well known in U.S. culture even as Buddhism, which grew of Hinduism. So if people have images at all in their heads — they don’t know anything, but they have a picture of Hinduism — it is of this multitude of deities, and that does not evoke universality, nor does it evoke a religion that is compatible with logical thinking. So, you know, talk to me about how you respond to those kind of stereotyped images that are out there. Or partial, let’s say.
MR. RAMAN: Sure. And I think there is every reason for that misunderstanding, and one of the fundamental scriptures of Hinduism is known as the Vedas, the Rig Veda verses. And in the Rig Veda, the most important aphorism or statement is “Truth is one and the people call it by different names.” And in Sanskrit, the word “truth” or sat — it’s called ekam sat, “there is but one truth.” I like to look at it as follows: If we talk about music, how many music are there? Even the question doesn’t sound right. However, in order for anybody to understand or appreciate music, one can only do it in terms of a particular song or sonata or concert or…
MS. TIPPETT: Or a genre that they…
MR. RAMAN: Or any genre of music, and a particular piece specifically. Now, the Hindu gods are, to me, somewhat like different pieces of music so…
MS. TIPPETT: The variety of melody and tempo.
MR. RAMAN: …the sheer variety.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. RAMAN: And just as you would say, ‘What is your favorite song?’ probably everybody would have their own favorite music, favorite piece. Likewise, in the Hindu world there is something called a favorite god, believe it or not. It’s called Ishtadeva. This is…
MS. TIPPETT: No, I have heard that, that people tend to identify very strongly…
MR. RAMAN: Yes, and they have a special regard for that particular depiction of the intangible. Every god is simply a representation. They are not any different, if you want to give an analogy, than having different saints in the Catholic tradition who are worshipped on different days, for example.
MS. TIPPETT: You also write about a fundamental insight of Hinduism that also finds expression in this multiplicity of tradition and gods, that this fundamental insight that there are no simple answers to complex questions. And, you know, that’s an important insight for our time, in every sphere of life.
MR. RAMAN: In fact, my own personal view is that the religious experience is precisely in the experience of that mystery. There is, in the human life, certain mystery surrounding all this. And it is the experience of that mystery, even if it is only momentary and even if it is only for a few minutes every day as, for example, when I do my meditation or whatever, that experience is what constitutes the religious experience. As soon as we unravel that mystery in words and in formulations, that becomes, in my view, the doctrine of a religion.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RAMAN: Many of the religious doctrines are profound answers to the mysteries, and they become interesting and important more in historical and geographical terms rather than in ultimate terms.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But you’re saying that that experience of mystery always, in some sense, eludes and transcends the doctrine that it became?
MR. RAMAN: Absolutely. And a doctrine may answer, within a religious framework, some of the mysteries. And to the extent that it gives fulfillment to the practitioners, I have no problems with that. But taking that to be universal, again is not wrong as long as one does not impose that on other people who may have different answers to the mysteries.
MS. TIPPETT: Hindu physicist V.V. Raman. Here’s a passage from his 1997 book about the Bhagavad Gita.
READER: “These lines in the Bhagavad Gita express one of the fundamental tenets of the Hindu worldview, indeed, the doctrinal essence of Hinduism. The most important realization of Hindu seers, the fundamental revelation that comes from their meditation and spiritual search, is that beneath and beyond the material and the physical world lies a spiritual reality. It’s only when one recognizes this that one has truly lived the human life.
An analogy with the physicist’s endeavor may clarify this thesis. We see, observe, and experience countless physical phenomena around us: lightening and sunrise, erosion of rocks and the colors of the rainbow, the blossoming of flowers and the freezing of water in the cold, and many more. But when we become aware of these as various consequences of fundamental physical laws, our depth of understanding is enhanced and our appreciation of the phenomenal world is enormously enriched. Likewise, say the seers, when we become aware of the spiritual substratum of the universe, our experience of it is heightened a thousandfold. Indeed, it is only when we achieve this that we really begin to see — that is, to understand — anything.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to ask you about some key ideas, notions, in Hinduism and what they mean to you, also how you live them and experience them as a scientist. And one of those — and, again, this is one of the few words, I think, that many people in a Western culture know from Hinduism — is karma. And I’d love to know what karma means for you and also, you know, how do you reconcile that kind of idea with what you know as a physicist.
MR. RAMAN: OK. There are an associated word which I think is equally important in the Hindu world and which has come into the West with different connotations, is dharma.
MS. TIPPETT: Dharma, yes.
MR. RAMAN: Now, very simply put, dharma is what we are expected to do and karmais what we do, very simplistically. Dharma has been translated variously as duty, as religion, and so on, or more exactly as an ethical framework. And there are many treatises in classical Hinduism, which talk of dharma in different ways. One of them, for example, lists such things as mercy and temperance, adherence to logic, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, not getting angry, and these are some of the kinds of ethical principles which…
MS. TIPPETT: An essential virtue is what comes to mind…
MR. RAMAN: The essential virtues. The dharma which is set to be the crucial one is the pursuit of truth and, in many instances, if one quotes from some of the texts, that is everything from being kind to others, being respectful to parents, those kinds of things. Now, karma is a metaphysical concept, which is the Hindu answer to what is sometimes called the problem of evil.
MS. TIPPETT: Karma is a response to the problem of evil.
MR. RAMAN: Yes. Because evil, in the sense of theodicy, coined as you know by Leibniz in answer to, you know, the French philosopher, Bayle, I think, who talked about how can you say that God is just and good and kind when you see all these things, earthquakes and natural disasters. So that is the problem of evil and different cultures have come up with different answers. The Hindu answer is evil in the sense of suffering ultimately is a consequence of one’s own actions. So karma, by itself, is any consequential action, any action that has an impact, positive or negative, on yourself or on others.
MS. TIPPETT: And implicit in that is a belief in reincarnation or in many lives, that life is not this linear, one-time thing.
MR. RAMAN: Absolutely. We cannot explain that. We talk of people getting away with murder. The Hindu idea is one — not forever.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So you might get away with murder in the moment, but, in fact, you don’t.
MR. RAMAN: This time, but you will — so the idea of the transmigration of the reincarnation is inevitable in the framework of karma. Now, the way I interpret the karmadoctrine is as follows: At the very least, it makes one take responsibility for one’s suffering, rather than point a finger at someone else.
MS. TIPPETT: And is the idea that though you in this life are living with the consequences of previous actions, the way you live this life…
MR. RAMAN: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: …could determine a better future.
MR. RAMAN: Absolutely. Now…
MS. TIPPETT: And I want to know, though, how you think about that, how you hold that belief, with everything you know about physics and cosmology as a scientist. Would you be able to talk about that with a fellow scientist in a way that would seem legitimate to them?
MR. RAMAN: No. I don’t think I can argue for reincarnation from a scientific perspective, quite honestly, although I know there are people who have done research on this question and who have quoted cases where people have vague memories and all that. And I have to confess that, as a physicist, I will leave that open. I do not have any firm convictions as to the mysteries of post-mortem existence. See, I take that as one of the mysteries for which I don’t know the answer and I rather suspect many others who claim to know. But modifying Hamlet slightly, I would say there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our sciences.
MS. TIPPETT: Hindu physicist V.V. Raman. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation with V.V. Raman, including his idea that poetry is to the human condition what the telescope is to the scientist.
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I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Heart’s Reason,” a conversation about Hinduism and science with V.V. Raman. He’s a physicist and a participant in the emerging global dialogue between science and religion. For many years, he’s written frequent short essays for friends and colleagues on art, religion, and science. He’s reflected on diverse religious figures, world leaders, and history ancient and modern. Here’s a personal essay V.V. Raman sent to friends and colleagues earlier this year.
READER: “We use words to talk. We enjoy music. We play with numbers. In the Hindu framework, there is a goddess who gives us words and language and music and numbers. That goddess is called Saraswati. Today the Hindu world celebrates that name joyously and ceremoniously. By tradition, we are not allowed to read today. Books in the house are placed on a pedestal and worshipped. But tomorrow, at crack of dawn, children are expected to rise early from bed and read from a book, with a resolve to do that every day of the year.”
MS. TIPPETT: Here is a traditional prayer to Sarasvati.
Ms. Tippett: You write about in the Hindu framework there’s a goddess who gives words and language and music and numbers, Sarasvati?
MR. RAMAN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So talk to me about how you live with a piece of mythology like that and live with what you know again about the physical universe, about numbers especially.
MR. RAMAN: See, mythology becomes a kind of fairytale sort of thing but maybe so…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. The implication in our culture is it’s something that’s not true. I don’t use the word that way, but yes.
MR. RAMAN: Yeah, but I understand what is said and I would be the first to say that it’s part of Hindu mythology, if you want. For the outsider, that’s no question. But there is something called mythopoesy or something called sacred history. These are parts of all the great religions of the world. And the poetic aspect is extremely important to me because poetry is what gives meaning to existence. Not fact and figures and charts, but poetry. Poetry is essentially a really sophisticated way of experiencing the world. And it is much more than mere words and stories because poetry is to the human condition, as it were, what the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist. So the way I look at it, like with Sarasvati — and I do a meditation to Sarasvati for everybody.
MS. TIPPETT: And this is the goddess.
MR. RAMAN: Yes, it’s a god. I find Veda — and there are images of Saraswati, very beautiful, beautifully clothed in a sari and with a vena, the grand musical instrument of India, and a rosary, as it were, which corresponds to the counting, the numbers. And to me, it is an imagery that evokes reverence and respect, not necessarily for the particular form in which it is depicted, but for all those intangibles, such as counting and number and music and knowledge and science, which enrich human life and human culture and human civilization. And therefore it’s an aesthetic experience to contemplate on something symbolic like that. And I’m well aware that ultimately all these are symbols and that they may not reflect exactly what is out there, but we live in symbols as long as we are cultural beings, and that is how I take it.
And I remember we used to do a prayer to Sarasvati in school every morning — and even now I think there are many schools in India which do that — and somehow it inspired us to go through the days of learning. And it hasn’t, quite frankly, done me any harm because — what I mean by that is I’m amazed at the kind of objections people raise to having a moment of prayer in school in America now. Believe it or not, I also went for some time to a Jesuit school and I repeated Paternoster in Latin; that didn’t do me any harm either. As far as I can see, these are inspired, these are parts of great traditions, and they can only infuse reverence and respect in the hearts of children.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve noted that there’s a fascinating importance of numbers in both science and religion, and I’d like for you to say something about that because it is quite interesting when you start thinking about it.
MR. RAMAN: Numbers, as you know, are in some ways mischievous in that although we concretize them when we count objects and things and days and hours and so on, we talk of numbers always in the first of those. Here is another example of polytheism, if you like, because nobody can image numbers except in those concrete terms of counting, and that numbers themselves are far more abstract, and philosophers of mathematics have often wondered and argued about whether numbers like the so-called irrational numbers and transcendental numbers and transfinite numbers, do they have any reality?
MS. TIPPETT: It becomes quite mysterious, doesn’t it, numbers?
MR. RAMAN: They become mysterious. And numbers that fall — intangible as they are, have also something mysterious about them, and my own feeling is that that may have been a reason why, one way or another, the religious traditions of humankind have incorporated numbers in specific ways. In the scientific world, on the other hand, numbers play a very, very different role and they are again associated more with natural phenomena.
MS. TIPPETT: Although I’ve always been fascinated in my conversations with scientists about how scientists find great beauty in mathematics.
MR. RAMAN: Yeah, absolutely. Now, that is more — much more than numbers, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s almost rapture. Right, it’s more than numbers, and yet numbers are the…
MR. RAMAN: No, you are absolutely right because for the mathematician or for the physicist, the idea of mathematics, you know, I think it was Sir James Jeans who said that God, for want of a better word, may be called mathematical fault or something like that because ultimately it is the mathematical beauty of the universe that grabs, I think, the physicist especially — may not be all scientists, but physicists, because there is something aesthetic about the laws of electromagnetism, for example, formulated by Maxwell or the so-called direct equations and so on. So that is very true.
MS. TIPPETT: Physicist and Hindu scholar V.V. Raman. Here’s an excerpt of his essay “Numbers in Religion.”
READER: “Every major religion refers to numbers and attaches particular significance to certain numbers. In Egyptian religion, there was number mysticism. The number 3 takes on a special significance in many religious contexts, in the Hindu tradition, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christianity, and so on. Four was important in ancient recognitions of elements: earth, water, air, and fire. In Chinese lore, 5 is the important number. The Pythagoreans regarded 6 as the perfect number because its factors, 1, 2, and 3, also add up to it. In the Judaic tradition, numbers are associated with Hebrew letters, and this enables experts to uncover esoteric meanings in words. The ancient Babylonians recognized seven celestial bodies that moved differently than all the stars in the heaven. Islamic scholars point out that the Qur’an’s magic number is 19. Buddhism speaks of the 12 golden rules, Jacob and Ishmael had 12 sons, Elijah built an altar of 12 stones, and Christ has 12 apostles, etc. Thus, numbers come into religious contexts in many instances. Could this be because numbers are as abstract as God and as irrelevant to human life as religion?”
MS. TIPPETT: At speakingoffaith.org, discover more short essays like the one you just heard on Hinduism, history, and the science-religion interface. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Heart’s Reason: Hinduism and Science, with V.V. Raman.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to ask you — we’ve been talking about how your religious sensibility, how that relates to your scientific sensibility. I’d like to ask another question. You talked about how karma is a Hindu response to the problem of evil. I wonder if your scientific knowledge and perspective also informs something like, let’s say, your — the way you think about the problem of evil in human life and even evil within religious traditions. Are there things you know as a physicist that give you more to work with, as you make sense of that personally?
MR. RAMAN: Certainly, I think it is my involvement in physics and the sciences that has given me what I call historical cultural understanding of many of these enormously meaningful things in life, because science, among other things, enables us to look at human events in human terms. Religions, in their context, enable us to look at human events in religious or transrational terms. Both, in a way, are meaningful and illuminating. If you read a sonnet, let us say, science is like the discovery of the rules of prosody, the rules by which the sonnet is constructed, of measure and syllable and accent, iambic pentameter or whatever.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RAMAN: Appropriately, you can analyze a poem and this understanding of the structure of the poem is a significant accomplishment but it tells us nothing about the meaning behind the poem or about the inspiration that the poem might give. And the universe, to me, is somewhat like that. Science enables us to understand the laws and principles by which the universe is constructed, its functions, and that is no trivial accomplishment. And I think that’s one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the human mind, is what modern science has been able to do.
But there is always the question of meaning. And while it is possible to derive meaning without going beyond the physical world — and many people do it — it is no less inspiring and fulfilling to find meaning within religious framework insofar as it is not irrational. There’s a difference between irrationality and transrationality, and, to me, many of the deeper messages of religions, such as the values it does or must inspire us to, such as caring and compassion and respect for others, helping others, love, reverence. These are not rational — these are not irrational, but these are transrational and they have their sources in the many religious frameworks of humankind. They not only carry the weight of centuries, but they also have something deep in them in the human cultural psyche.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, as you know, we unfortunately don’t always just see the best of religions, and I think that one reason language about what is transrational carries a new kind of sense of threat in our time because there’s a lot of violence being committed in the name of God and transcendence. How do you watch that and how do you think about that?
MR. RAMAN: That is a perennial problem. I have tried, naturally, to articulate whatever is the best and illuminating in the religious traditions, if only because there is ample evidence of whatever is worst in the daily news.
MS. TIPPETT: Nobody needs to articulate that, yes.
MR. RAMAN: Yeah, and it is depressing that we live in an age when religions have become associated with politics and violence and war and recriminations, that if anybody is to grieve for this, it should be the gods above because this is not what I believe religions were meant to be. And it is true that in this context it is extremely important for the leaders, the intellectuals and the thinkers of the world, to speak out openly about all that is bad and evil that has come out of religions, but given that religion is such an intrinsic part of human culture and means so much to at least four, perhaps five billion human beings, what can be realistically done, in my view, is to, if one may use the term, tame or bring out whatever is still good and worthy in religions.
MS. TIPPETT: Perhaps one can say that a dark side of Hinduism, which seems to me to defy this virtue of universality, is the caste system.
MR. RAMAN: Now, that is a very important point. I don’t want to be apologetic here; I will be the first to say — and I am part of a group which — a growing number of Hindus, both in India and abroad, are speaking out and writing against the evils of the caste system.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. RAMAN: But the point to remember is that casteism has a slowly but surely disappearing aspect of Hinduism so…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. RAMAN: …and all through India’s history there have been so many poets and thinkers and philosophers who have spoken out against what can only be called a scourge of casteism.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RAMAN: And it is a slow ingrained process, but I think that very rapid social changes — I personally, as a Hindu, I will say that I have never been pleased with casteism being part of my own religion, and although I was born in a Brahmin family, I, in fact, refused to accept the caste title that goes with my name. Therefore it is not something that can be defended in any way in the modern world. We have changed — the world has changed in many ways, and so does Hinduism, as it ought to, as all civilized religions ought to.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that in the last century there is a person who almost embodied Hinduism for many, and that would have been Gandhi. I mean, Gandhi is still this amazing figure, influenced leaders of other religious traditions, was revered by Einstein.
MR. RAMAN: Mm-hmm. I belong to a generation, which worshipped Gandhi, as it were, and I was in high school when I attended what they used to call mass meetings where Gandhi spoke, when several hundred thousand people were there. And to me, Gandhi was extraordinary in many, many ways. Most of all, he understood, I think, that basically — that is, humans beings are decent, and no matter what, it is by trying to bring out whatever is good and noble in the human personality, that we can resolve many conflict problems.
Now, I will be the first to grant that this can be idealistic talk and in many instances it simply may not work, and people have pointed out could you have applied nonviolence to Hitler and so on. But we need to strive for or at least try to see if we can resolve problems by peaceful means and by trying to be understanding of the opponent’s point of view and that is the key. And Gandhi is a supreme example, and I personally think — I’m glad there were people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, two outstanding people in later times who followed Gandhi’s path. I, myself, think, with due respect to the complex problems that this country is facing and President Bush is facing, unless there is an effort to extend a hand of friendship to our most virulent opponents, invite them for conversations and see how best we can resolve all the mess that have come about, as a result of — doesn’t matter whose fault, there is really little hope that we can resolve the complex problems of the world by continuing to escalate anger and hatred, however justified it may seem from one’s own perspective.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s, for you, the important legacy of Gandhi right now.
MR. RAMAN: I think so. And I think Gandhi has become extraordinarily relevant. I said I belong to a generation because Gandhi is not so highly regarded today in many parts even of India because of all the frustrations and chaos that had been caused partly because of this excessive effort to understand the opponent. There are people who have argued that it is that attitude which has resulted in…
MS. TIPPETT: Has created problems.
MR. RAMAN: Yeah. So we don’t know, it’s — but I think we can never give up ideals if civilization is to last.
MS. TIPPETT: V.V. Raman is emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. His books include Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections. Here, in closing, is a passage from V.V. Raman’s reflection in that book about the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore influenced Mahatma Gandhi, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.
READER: “Tagore was a prolific writer, musical composer, artist, but, above all, a Bengali poet par excellence. He was gifted, through some mysterious genetic coding, with rhyme and rhythm, with inner melody and exuberant creativity. In his offerings, Tagore reflected on the inner essence of reality and there first appeared his immortal lines, ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; into that heaven wake this Indian land.’ If Tagore was profoundly moved by the glorious insights of Upanishadic texts, he was no less appalled and pained by the inhumanity of casteism and the mindless mutterings of heartless orthodoxy. The perennial prayer of ancient India, the vibrant theme that is echoed all through Indian history, is also given due place, for the poet pleads: ‘Oh, grant me the prayer that I may never lose the bliss of the touch of the one in the play of the many.’ It is in the words of the poets that the deepest religious feelings of humankind survive.”
MS. TIPPETT: Contact us and share your thoughts at speakingoffaith.org. This program’s Web site features streaming MP3s of Indian music, explanations about its ties to Hinduism’s rich traditions and texts, and lush images of festivals devoted to the goddess Saraswati. Also, sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter and subscribe to our free podcast so you’ll never miss another program again. Listen on demand, when you want, wherever you want. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson and editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss, with assistance from Jennifer Krause. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, the executive editor is Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett.